The “model minority.” That’s what Asian-Americans are often called. Whether you look at their median income, their crime rate, their rates of educational attainment, or their employment rate, it paints pretty much the same happy picture. Asian Americans tend, even more than whites, to be gainfully employed, law-abiding, educated, and earn good money. In and of itself there’s nothing wrong with this information. The problem arises when it is used as a tool to suggest a race-blind meritocracy or that other groups could do it too if they would just fix themselves. It’s a way of sloughing the responsibility we have as a society to amend our double standards.

Hopefully you’ve already read this post detailing just some of the ways in which racism is still present in our American society. It may be confusing for some on how to reconcile that racism with the apparent success that Asian-Americans have found. I’ve certainly witnessed my fair share of people trotting out the success of Asian-Americans as proof that anyone can do it as long as they follow the rules. This simply isn’t true and it becomes all too clear when you take a deeper look at the statistics.

Confounding Variables

Median income is a deceptive statistic unless you understand all the influences on it that distort the true Asian-American median income. Firstly, Asian Americans tend to be heavily concentrated in areas like Los Angeles, New York, Hawaii, and San Francisco. If you’ve ever lived in this places you know that the cost of living there is incredibly high. With the higher cost of living comes a higher average income. This greatly inflates the median income for Asian-Americans.

Then comes the fact that Asian-Americans tend to be much more educated than any other group.

Not to be glib but it’s not even close. Over 15% more Asian-Americans have an advanced degree compared to the next closest racial demographic. And this is true up and down the ladder. Relative to their population, Asian-Americans have more Master’s degrees, more Bachelor’s degrees, more First Professional degrees. It shouldn’t be controversial that people with higher educational attainment tend to earn more money. But it would be foolish to look at black doctors making more money than white fast food workers and then to conclude that racism doesn’t exist because blacks are making more than whites. We need to compare like to like. When we do a familiar picture emerges.

In a multivariate study of income by education and by occupation, Barringer et al (1993:265) found that when other factors were controlled, “whites earned more than Asian Americans in almost all occupational categories except in the professions, where Asian Americans had much higher incomes, but even there they bested whites only among the self employed.” They conclude that Asian Americans are highly educated and convert that education into high status occupations, but nevertheless they are paid less than whites for the same or comparable positions (Barringer et al 1993:266).

As you can see whites are still at the top of the income ladder, it’s just masked somewhat by the big edge that Asians have in terms of education.

The Key is Education

Education is vital to understanding this subject. Education is at the root of all the other characteristics which make Asian-Americans the supposedly “model” minority. Higher educational attainment is linked to higher incomes, lower crime rates, and lower unemployment rates. So what explains the trend of Asian-American educational superiority?

Simply put, it’s self-selected and situational.

It is more difficult to immigrate to the United States from Asian than it is from South or Central America. The distance, the cost, the mode of transportation. You’ll sometimes hear stories of people arriving on makeshift rafts from Cuba or simply getting stuffed into trucks and hauled across the Mexican-American border. It would be an incredible feat to arrive in a comparable way from Asia across the Pacific Ocean making illegal immigration more difficult. The ones that are allowed into the country legally based on US immigration policy are usually very well educated.

Immigrant arrivals from Asia — now the region sending the most new immigrants to the U.S. — tend to be very well educated, with some 57% of them holding at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013.

By comparison, ~32% of all Americans have a college degree or higher. The Asian immigrants aren’t getting that education in the United States, they are arriving with it. While degrees often do not translate, the value of their education is still there. Well educated adults are better prepared to navigate a new country and better able to figure out how to make sure their children get a good education so they can succeed as well.

You could also look at the stark difference between educated immigrant groups versus uneducated groups to show the power that education has. There are some Asian-American groups that aren’t as well educated. It plays out harshly for them. Southeast Asian groups such as Cambodians and Laotians have a 20%+ poverty rate and a median personal income of about $16,000. Significantly lower than Indian, Chinese, and Filipino-Americans. Of course, crime is also higher among those Asian-American groups with lower educational attainment.

One study of the California Youth Authority in 2002 found that Cambodian and Laotian youth were incarcerated at 4 and 9 times the rate that would be expected by their respective populations. Vietnamese and Laotian youth had the second and third highest arrest rates in Richmond in 2000 after African American youth.

Black immigrants tell the same story a different way. Black immigrants come over college educated at a 26% rate as compared to the native black population’s 19%. Consistent with the fact that education is the primary influence the median income for black immigrants is significantly higher than native borns, though less than other immigrant groups.


If Asian-Americans are a model minority it is largely because they arrive in the United States with their education in hand. Just like other racial and ethnic groups, well educated Asian parents produce well educated children. Just like other racial and ethnic groups, well educated Asian-Americans tend to have lower rates of crime, higher incomes, and lower rates of unemployment. Properly understood these numbers and facts don’t portray Asian-Americans as a model minority, they are a call for making a good education a national priority for everyone regardless of race or class or any other classification.

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Originally published at on February 17, 2016.